The Dying Art of Strong Female Characters

by | 1 December 2017 | Writing | 17 comments

Strong female characters are one of the hardest sorts of characters to write realistically. Harder than writing a realistic POV character from the opposite gender. Harder even than not killing off your mentor character. 😛

Now, before we go any further, I should clarify. I’m not taking on the normal topic of strong female characters. There’s five gajillion articles about writing female characters who are inwardly strong, but today that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the physically strong characters.

Why? Because all characters should be inwardly strong. Otherwise they’re bad characters. End of story. Every single character in a novel should have depth and thematic point, so I’m not going to talk about that.

Physically strong female characters are starting to dwindle. The stereotyped ‘strong female character’ has so much punching it right now that writers are getting too nervous about writing a physically strong female in case she gets slapped in the face with a ‘stereotype’ sticker.

But I love physically strong female characters. I love the aspect they can bring to a story. The juxtaposition. The snark.

 

One of my most favourite strong female characters ever is Beth Watkins from the Mission League. When she first walks onto the page, she looks and acts exactly like anyone would expect that stereotypical female character to look and act. But then layer after layer of personality and depth peels back and she’s not stereotypical at all. She’s a girl. She’s strong. She likes fighting. Sweet. That doesn’t make her stereotypical.

 

Diana Prince in a super (literally) strong female.


She and the Amazons can do flips, do archery while swinging through the air, dodge flying spears, best anyone in a sword fight. Diana is such an innocent character, so wide eyed and idealistic and honest. And she can fight better than the guys. Is she a stereotype? No. She’s a unique character, because of her personality.

Just having a girl being strong and good at fighting doesn’t make her a stereotype.

 

If that’s true, then what is it that makes people put a girl into that category?

It’s all about realism.

Personally I have delved into several different martial arts and gymnastics over my writing career. Parkour, taekwondo, muay thai, boxing, karate, general self defense. I’ve never actually taken lessons in any of them, but I’ve practiced techniques from all and know the theory behind quite a few. Obviously someone who actually knows any of these would be fifty times better than me, but I’m not totally ignorant. 😛

As a writer, I highly recommend researching into martial arts if you’re going to write a character who has those skills. As a girl, I have experience in what it’s like to try these sorts of things, and it’s so much easier to write when I know what it feels like from personal experience.

We get a stereotype when every second scene in the book goes something like this:

Girl fights ten giant guys in an alley. Totally thrashes them because she’s awesome. Woot, happy times, good job to our strong female character.

It’s not realistic.

This is where people normally push the female character to the side, saying that a girl can’t win in that situation.

No. A girl could win. But not just by bashing everyone’s heads in.

With any sort of martial art, there is always a technique. Always a strategy. People don’t just randomly throw punches and kicks at whim. There is always a plan behind every move.

If a girl relies on her strength, there’s a high chance that she’ll lose the fight. But if she can use strategy and strength combined she can definitely thrash a trained guy. To take an example from Beth Watkins again:

An easy hip throw sent me to the mat. I shook my head and blinked, but didn’t move fast enough. She [Beth] kneeled on my back, but I managed to get my arms under myself before she could grab one. I could easily get free. She dug her knee into my back. I cringed as I worked my leg up to roll her.

“You’re doing good… Spencer,” she whispered in my ear. “I was wrong about you. Maybe we should go out.”

I pushed up to roll over and blinked. Was she serious?

The next thing I knew, she’d flipped me onto my back and pinned me in a front strangle, seconds before the whistle blew.

Here, Beth was losing the fight against Spencer. But then she played on his weakness and that distraction was enough for this trained teen girl to take out a 6’4″ trained teenage guy.

 

Strong female characters can be realistic. Don’t shy away from writing them just because if you have a physically strong female ‘she must be a stereotype.’

Yes, we need more inwardly strong female characters, but we also need that for all other characters as well. We don’t want to waste the well of possibility in physically strong females. They can bring a new twist into the story, and they can be done really well. Don’t be afraid of that stereotype sticker, it’s not the strength factor that makes them a stereotype.

 

Your turn! What are your thoughts on physically strong female characters? Have you ever trained in a martial art?

Jane Maree

Jane Maree

Jane Maree is an Adventurer—exploring the endless wonders of God’s beautiful creation. She started writing by accident, but since the very beginning has loved the enchantment of words on paper. If you say anything about pizza, superheroes, books, or any of her many, many fandoms, she’ll come at the double. Aside from crafting worlds using only twenty-six letters, she is a passionate Jesus-lover, freelance editor, self-trained martial artist, songwriter, and musician. In her spare time, she's often off on random adventures in the name of story research. She seeks to inspire her readers to step out and become the heroes of hope this world needs.

17 Comments

  1. Jenna

    Awesome subject. This is a topic I’ve been hearing conflicting info/opinions about, but I like the way you put it (since, ya know, ’cause I’m writing a superhero novel and the protag is a girl & she has to be able to fight).
    hehe, my brother did karate for several years. Watching every single one of his classes makes me understand the strategy side of fighting. So good point; it’s not all about strength. 😉 lol, I can’t really picture myself actually DOING martial arts, though. I’d much rather watch tons of videos. 🙂

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      Thank you! There are a LOT of articles out there talking about the ‘strong female character’ stereotype, and I certainly agree with most of them—inner strength is more important than physical—but no one ever really says anything about the physical side.

      Ooh yes, that’s handy. 😛 Watching videos is definitely better than nothing! YouTube channels like FightTIPS are really good for stuff like that. I regularly stalk those videos. 😉

      Reply
      • Jenna

        ooh, good to know! 😉

        Reply
  2. Mary Kate

    Thankyouthankyouthankyou.
    This post is exactly what I’ve been saying for a long time!

    And as someone who DOES kick box, do self defense, etc STRATEGY IS VERY IMPORTANT! Especially when the odds aren’t leaning your way and when everyone out weighs you 🙂

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      *fistbump* Aw cool!

      Ooh you do kickboxing? That’s so cool. Strategy always gives that extra advantage over an opponent, trained or no.
      Maybe I’ll have to chat with you sometime about what you know, because I’m always wanting to learn more! 😛

      Reply
  3. Catherine @ The Rebelling Muse

    As someone who is kinda interested in martial arts and has taken self defense classes, I do agree that having a woman being able to defend herself is important. And defending herself using strategy and weaknesses like you mentioned is super important to differentiate.

    And for physically strong characters, let’s not ignore the girls that bring home stacks of books, or the farm girls that can lift those heavy grain/crop sacks and shove around 1000lb+ animals. Because their physical strength often gets ignored too.

    Catherine
    catherinesrebellingmuse.blogspot.com

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      Yes! Being strong and able to defend yourself isn’t stereotypical at all. I personally love learning about fighting techniques. 😛

      Ooh yes of course. Book carrying is very good for the biceps. xP And all those other things too—you’re totally right.

      Reply
  4. J.A.Penrose

    Indeed Jane, indeed.
    I often freak out at writing strong female characters due to my past disasters of them, but maybe I’ll keep this in mind and give it a shot again!
    Thanks for the really good post!

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      No need to freak out. 😛
      Yess, you should try it. And if you need anyone to practice martial arts on/ask stuff to, I’m always here.
      You’re welcome. 😀

      Reply
  5. Sarah

    Woah, yes. This is very good. Muchly useful. 10/10 topic.

    Will read again ^-^

    (But in all seriousness, I think you’ve nailed this blog post perfectly and now whenever I see someone complaining about this sorta thing (as in the “GET RID OF THE STRONG-FEMALE CHARACTER TROPE” kinda person), I shall direct them to this post ^-^)

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      Awk, thank you! I’m so happy that it was useful (particularly considering the mess it was in the first attempt at writing it xP).

      (Aw cool. ^.^ You’re making me smile so big. 😀 )

      Reply
  6. Quinley

    Cool post, Jane!:)
    I tend to have a few strong woman characters in my stories, as well as strong men. Also another good strong female character is Tauriel (from The Hobbit movies, only).
    -Quinley

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      Thanks, Quinley!
      Oh cool. I like that you’re confident enough to write them. 😀
      Mm yes. To my shame, I don’t remember much about Tauriel, but from what I do remember, she wasn’t too bad of a character. *nods*

      Reply
  7. Chelsea

    I agree with this 1000%. I would say that I’m a fairly strong female (highland dancing for over a decade has helped contribute to that!) and I could give a pretty good thump if I needed to. And yes, I think that we immediately point and shriek “cliché!!!” as soon as we see a girl who can take care of herself, but we don’t need to. as long she has a well developed and likeable personality, I don’t mind whether she’s a tomboy, a fighter, a bookworm, or whatever. I enjoy reading about all types of women, whether they are internally strong or physically strong (it’s just when they’re ONLY physically strong that it gets to me).

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      Haha highland dancing would definitely do that. XD

      Yes, that’s exactly it! We scream ‘cliche’ as soon as we see a physically strong girl even if that’s actually realistic. In real life there are strong girls. I’m one. You’re one. There are ladies everywhere who are really strong and can totally take care of themselves in a fight against the average male.

      Reply
  8. MiddleEarthMusician

    Ooh, I loved this post!!! Thanks for your input, Jane! This is the reason why I made Shae in M:M so well trained in Martial Arts. XD Beth was an awesome character! 😀 I take Kung Fu, so I would consider myself somewhat strong. Carrying babies also tends to give you muscle. ;-P

    Reply
    • Jane Maree

      Aw thanks. ^-^
      Beth was so cool! I really loved her. *nodnod*
      Carrying babies is basically the ultimate weight lifting. XD

      Reply

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